Friday, October 25, 2013

Quinta do Crasto

Quinta do Crasto

Douro Valley, Cima Corgo
September 2nd and 3rd, 2013

Quinta do Crasto estate hilltop
Nestled in the heart of the Douro Valley, Quinta do Crasto sits high on the crest of a hilltop with beautiful terroir that overlooks the Douro River a few miles west of Pinhao in Cima Corgo. "Crasto" is one of the most admired and respected Quinta in all of the Douro Valley, led by the Roquette family that is one of the most respected wine families in Portugal. While out dining, I saw more bottles of Quinta do Crasto wines than any other single brand on the tables of the local Portuguese. The value that Crasto wines deliver is spectacular across the entire range of wines. Wine is produced at all price levels from the basic Flor white or red that cost about $9, all the way up to the rare and spectacular Maria Teresa at $100+. The range of styles leans more to a traditional style of winemaking. For me the essence of the estate and the Douro comes through most in the expression of the “Old Vine Reserva” which is made from 30 different grape varieties from estate vines that are 70+ years old. Priced fairly at about $35, this is a go to wine for anyone looking to explore Portuguese table wines at the premium level.

The sun setting behind the hills that make up the Quinta do Crasto estate.
We originally planned to spend one afternoon at Crasto for a tour and tasting, but ended up being guests the following day for some swimming in a stunning infinity pool and dinner with a selection of older and rare wines from the Crasto cellars. As we made our way through the tight and winding roads through the north west side of the Douro from Pinhao on our way to Crasto, the stunning views of the Douro countryside were intoxicating. As far as the eyes could see, there were hillsides rising up from the river banks. Many of these hillsides were covered top to bottom with the schist terrace vineyards, many built hundreds of years ago by hand. Where there were no vines or terraces, there was the brush scrub indigenous to the region, olive tree groves or terraces that were abandoned years ago around the time of phylloxera and never brought back into working condition. These ghost vineyards are called mortórios that still have the terraces that define them, but are crumbling and overtaken by the indigenous brush scrub. In some places the mortórios are being replanted and brought back to life, but some are so far gone that it is not economically feasible to bring them back to life.

Check out that view over the Douro River
As we arrived at Crasto, we took in the stunning views of the vineyards and the Douro River below. Driving up to the estate we saw in full view the renowned Maria Teresa estate vineyard that produces what is to me the best wine produced by Crasto. When we arrived we met Andrea, head of hospitality at Crasto, who was one of our favorite people we met during our trip to Portugal. Disarmingly friendly, funny and a great host, Andrea seemed like a long lost sister that was taking care of her family while we were under her care. She showed us around the estate and that was where we came across the most magnificent infinity pool I have ever seen. There was a beautiful patio that was just off the back of the home with a long communal table that seemed to be the perfect setting for leisurely dinners and lunches with guests, friends, and family.

Andrea, our amazing host at Crasto and Miguel our steadfast guide.
 We made our way inside to the dining room to get started with the wine tasting. We tasted our way through a good portion of the Douro 2012 white wine, 2011 Crasto Superior, the 2010 and 2004 Old Vine Reserva, and the epic 2007 Maria Teresa which is made from 100 year old estate vines. As is tradition in the Douro, we finished the tasting with a port, the 2008 LBV to be exact.

The Maria Theresa vineyard just below the estate buildings at Quinta do Crasto
We were having a great time during our tasting, learning about the different vineyards Crasto owns, production methods, and the history about the Roquette family and the Crasto property. Andrea was asking how we liked our trip so far and where we had been eating lunch and dinners. Andrea asked me what our dinner plans were the next day. Miguel mentioned we were going to the CS Vintage House and Andrea hinted that may not be the best choice for us. So since we were at the Crasto dining room table as a joke I said, “well, we could always just come here instead”. Without flinching Andrea opened up her calendar book and lucky enough for us the schedule was clear the following evening and she said that would be fine. I said to Andrea “You know I was kidding, right?” Well, she was not kidding.  Andrea told us she would double check with the staff to be sure the schedule was fully clear and if so to come back the next day to swim in the infinity pool and enjoy a meal at the table out back with some of the great Crasto wines. Thankfully that was the case and by the next morning we had confirmed our evening plans with Andrea.

Tasting grapes in the vineyard.
After the tasting we took a glass with us and headed into the vineyards. We got into the soil and terraces and since the fruit was so far advanced, we were able to taste a few of the different grape varieties. It was amazing to taste the same grape variety from different vineyards and have them taste so differently. Conveniently the sun was setting and we got some great photos of us in the vineyards. Funny enough we had our own paparazzi with Andre and Miguel manning the cameras. The last time we had this kind of camera attention was our wedding.

Barriques in the lagares and stacked off to the side.

Fermentation and blending tanks.

Fermentation tanks

The new barrel room, all walls, columns and stacking structures are black.

Racking barrels in the new barrel room.

We soon made our way to a tour of the wine making facilities, walking through the multiple fermentation rooms, barrel rooms and bottle storage locations. We also stepped into the onsite lab where they were currently testing grapes to check sugar levels and ripeness to better time the looming harvest. The week after we left the harvest commenced. The same lab also identified the 30+ varietal plantings within the vineyards that produce the old vine and the Maria Teresa wines. We finished up the tour and drew the day at Crasto to a close. As we left we felt so lucky and privileged to have had such a great experience and were looking forward to coming back the next day for dinner.

The estate home at Quinta do Crasto.

As we were making our way to our first appointment Miguel got the call from Andrea that we were good to go for dinner that evening at Crasto. The day was set and now ready to unfold perfectly. After our Quinta appointments that day, we got to Crasto around 6pm, just in time to see the sun set and for a quick dip in the pool. Our new best friend Andrea greeted us with a warm smile and made us feel right at home. We quickly changed into our swim suits and made our way to the most amazing of infinity pools I have ever seen. The pool was fresh water and had a refreshing chill to it to enliven the senses. I really think it made the delightful bottle of the Crasto white that Andreas opened taste even better. Refreshing and clean, the Crasto Branco had excellent citrus fruit notes, minerality with excellent acidity and freshness. As we sat pool side and sipped the wine, Andrea brought out a spectacular platter of appetizers that we happily devoured. We nibbled on Roasted Marcona almonds from trees planted around the estate property, some local cheese, as well as estate olives, crusty bread and a slew of mixed bites. If we were not careful we would fill up before we made it to dinner. Once the sun started to make its way down, it cooled off so we made our way back inside freshen up for dinner.

The amazing infinity pool.

Fresh ingredients for dinner that evening.

The family style dinner table,

As we sat down to the dinner table our minds moved to an even further relaxed state, sharing stories of our day and from our lives back in the US with our new friends in Portugal. The light was perfect, as the sun set and gave way to the night, a mellow gold pink and orange sky turned to dark blue, purple and then black as night finally arrived.

As the courses of food started to make their way out, Andrea had generously opened some fantastic wines for us to have with dinner. I did not take any tasting notes but from memory I will do my best to get across how spectacular they were. The 2011 vintage port was rock solid. A stout mass of cherry, blueberry and brambly blackberry mixed with crushed rock and a slight grilled herb note that was just barely hinting at the amazing future this port has ahead of it. A rare wine to find here in the US, if you see any get a bottle it as it will be a special treat, especially the 2011. Next up was our second stab at the Crasto Superior. An excellent value, the Crasto Superior shows the rugged beauty of the Douro Superior region in a glass. Full bodied with wild fruit notes, the tannins were more than happy to ratchet up the complexity and structure of this bold red wine.

My favorite of the tasting was also one of my favorite wines we had the entire trip, a single varietal Touriga Nacional bottling from 2005 that was absolutely spectacular. Some bottle age, exuberant fruit, good structure from the ripe and silky tannins and some lively acidity lent this wine a regalness not seen often by those outside of Portugal. It’s hard enough to find the current vintage of this wine, never mind one 8 years old.  However it is well worth the time and money to seek out a few bottles.

The last of the bottle for the evening was the Quinta do Crasto 'Xisto' Roquette e Cazes. This is a wine made by with participation by the Bordeaux winemaker for Chateau Lynch-Bages, thus the family name Cazes. Roquette of course is the family that owns Quinta do Crasto. The influence of Bordeaux is definitely apparent with new, but subtle toasty oak notes, red and blue fruits, with supple medium grain tannins and ample acidity.

As we finished off the dessert, we started to top off the last glasses of wine for the evening and head home to conclude an unforgettable evening. We picked up a few bottles from Crasto to take home and Miguel drove us back to Vallado to retire for the evening. On the way back we had a nice drive, unleashing a chorus of sing-along with Journey’s ‘Don’t Stop Beleivin’. Flashes of The Sopranos, my college days and The Douro Valley were flipping through my head, what a great end to an incredible day. We will be back to the Douro Valley and when we do we will make sure to visit Crasto again. If you find yourself headed to the Douro I cannot recommend more a stop at Crasto, who knows maybe if you make an impression you may be able to stay for dinner. Andrea and the staff at Quinta do Crasto made us feel at home, like we were hanging out with family around the dinner table. What more can you ask for?

Below are the tasting notes for the wines we tasted during our first visit to Crasto.

2012 Douro Branco
Made from traditional Douro white grape varieties Gouveio, Roupeiro and Rabigato, this wine was pale straw in color; waxy lemon notes, flowers and a touch of honey in the nose. The palate is fresh, clean, stony and chalky, with bright citrus lemons.

Crasto Superior 2011
Made from Touriga Nacional, Touriga Franca, Tinta Roriz, and Sousao, this wine has a very dark core. The Sousao grape is a red fleshed grape that contributes to that additional depth of color. It spends 1 year in 2nd use French oak barrels. Blackberry, black cherry, licorice, Asian spices, and meaty notes rise from the glass. Fresh and clean, there is good depth, medium+ tannin, with a long and persistent finish for the class this wine lives in.

2010 Riserva Old Vines
The Riserva was open for 2.5 hours when we tasted it. Crafted from vines averaging 70 years this is a classy and elegant wine; beautiful, with great persistency and balance. This is an outstanding wine of aristocratic nobility. Impeccably balanced, fresh and long in the finish. Black cherry, creme d'cassis, and subtle oak notes meld well in the palate. The flavors stretch on for what seems a very long time. The Riserva will age nicely in bottle for 10-15 years depending on the vintage.

2004 Riserva Old Vines
A red core with lighter red edges, this wine was in a real sweet spot for drinking. Mature notes of dry red fruits, haunting forest floor, cigar wrapper, cedar, and a mild oak influence, it was so open and broad, complex, yet finely elegant. Good depth, persistency and excellent oak integration. This is a world class wine, refined. So easy to enjoy and savor, the flavors unfold in layers over the palate.

2007 Vinha Maria Theresa
From the oldest vines on the estate averaging 98 years old, the fruit from these vines is minimal, yet excellent in quality. The wine is not made every year, but only in excellent years when the character of the vineyard rises to levels above the rest of the estate old vines. The name Maria Theresa came from the daughter of the prior family that owned Crasto. 1998 was the first vintage and has only been made in 6 vintages since then. The 2007 was aged in 15% American oak barrels and the rest in new French oak barrels. The 2009 was aged in 100% new French oak barrels for 20 months. A dark ruby core, with vibrant red edges. Coaxing the nose brings out 
black and blue berries, cherry, charcoal, licorice, and earth tone aromas. You can barely notice the oak but for a hint of creaminess and roundness on the palate. This was really big on the palate with tons of complexity. It sailed on to a fine and elegant finish that was long and clean.

2008 LBV
This was newly bottled 1 week prior to our tasting but one would never know it from what we tasted. Violets and purple flowers, pepper and spice, savory herbal notes. Fresh and powerful, this attacks the palate with intensity and opens nicely across the palate, giving way to a long palate staining port experience. A huge bargain, this is one to seek out for more frequent consumption.

A bientot!


Friday, October 11, 2013

Taylor, Fladgate & Yeatman

Taylor, Fladgate & Yeatman

Porto, Portugal

August 31, 2013

LBV tank at Taylor's Port Lodge.

Taylor Fladgate Yeatman, more commonly known as “Taylor Fladgate” or “Taylor’s” has a long and storied history of being one of the premier Port shippers. Today Taylor’s is respected by their peers and admired the world round as one of the greatest producers of fine ports in many different styles and varieties. Located in Portugal near the coastal town of Porto, Taylor’s is actually located across the mighty Douro River from Porto in Villanova de Gaia. In fact Villa Nova de Gaia is home to the “Lodges" of all the great Port shippers. The Port Lodges sit clustered amongst each other in Villanova de Gaia on the hillside rising up from the south side of the Douro River bank, seemingly overlapping each other since they sit so close together.
If you are not familiar with Port you may be thinking what exactly is a Port shipper and what is a Port Lodge. The term Port shipper is derived from the fact that companies like Taylor’s originally, and for decades after their inception hundreds of years ago, mostly only received finished wine, fortified the wine with Brandy, aged the fortified wine in “pipes” (large wood casks), bottled it and then shipped the finished Port wines off to the United Kingdom. The base of a Port shippers operations where they received the wine, processed, blended and aged it into fine Port wine is called a Port Lodge. The Port shippers were almost exclusively founded by persons from the UK and is part of the story of how Port wine was discovered, or rather invented (more on that later). This British connection is also why the majority of the Port shippers have Anglo names in a country where the indigenous last names sound nothing like an Englishman’s surname. 

Boat used to carry wine from the Douro Valley to Porto destined to become Port.  Note the huge rudder off the back on the right.

Since Port shippers had a much different role then a winery for the first century or so of their existence, it is hard to call them a winery or anything similar to a chateau. In many ways the inner workings of a Port shipper are very different and quite diverse compared to your typical winery, and in some ways they are very similar, especially in the modern era of Port production. Up until the most recent decades almost all Port shippers did not tend vineyards or harvest and process grapes into wine. Taylor’s was a rare exception in that they did own vineyard property in the Douro Valley buying their first property in the mid 1700’s. They would receive the vinified wine at their Lodges down river from the Douro Valley via boat in huge casks that held the pre-fortified wines and were then aged in the pipes in the Port Lodges.

Part of the huge Quinta de Terra Feita estate vineyard north of Pinhao along the Pinhao tributary river that flows into the Douro River

Nowadays it’s a different story. Almost all Port shippers exclusively own multiples of vineyards and Quinta where they tend vineyards, harvest and then process grapes into wine to use in the Port production process. Quinta is a term that most closely relates to a winery or Chateau in the Douro Valley. The Quinta can represent the entire estate with multiple vineyards or the main building or structure at a vineyard site in the Douro Valley.

So, how did Port wine come about? Well, based on a few different books and stories from people in the Port business, the English discovered Port wine while trying to find a replacement for the French wines they could not purchase when at war with said country. Now, if you remember your history classes even a little bit, the English and French fought like cats and dogs most of the 11th through the early 19th centuries. Heck one of the wars lasted 100 years and is named just that. If the war was not so bad, there was only a heavy tax making the wines prohibitively expensive. If the war was bad, you simply could not get casks of wine imported. So some resourceful chaps with a nose for discovery went in search of new sources of wine and stumbled upon Portugal, more specifically the Douro Valley. These Port Pioneers first found wines in Porto that caught their attention but it was supposedly not to their liking but a good start. Eventually they made their way up river to the far eastern navigable reaches of the Douro River. There they had finally found the wines they were looking for. The wines were rich, fruity and full bodied. As the story goes, in order to protect these wines from the harsh rigors of a journey by sea back to England brandy was added to the wines to fortify them from spoilage.  Thus, Port was born and the sole reason why the English influence has been so strong. Reading through the history of this great Port Shipper, you get the sense of the hard work, skill, patience, fortitude and luck that it took to get the Taylor Fladgate Yeatman company to the stature of where it is today and most of the 20th century (Official History).  Since it's
 inception in 1692, Taylor's has been led by hard working men with a knack for strong leadership coupled with great vision

Yours truly in front of the entrance to Taylor's Port Lodge.

For our stay in Porto, we only had time for one Port Lodge visit so I decided that it had to be Taylor’s for its storied history and impeccable reputation as being one of the finest Port producers in all of Portugal. I really wanted to see the Vargellas vineyard in Douro Superior but there are no facilities there to host guests to taste through the range of Port wines they offer. We also decided to stay at the Yeatman hotel across the street from the Taylor Port Lodge for our lone evening in Porto.  The Yeatman was by far one of the nicest hotels we have ever stayed at in all of our travels around the world. Each room is named after a sponsoring Portuguese wine producer; ours was room #301 Comenda Grande from the Alentejo region. The elevators are lacquered with panoramic scenery from the Douro and inside the dark cellars of the Taylor's Port Lodge. The hallways are finely appointed with original works of art from different times in the history of the city of Porto, with each floor having a different time period of art. The Yeatman exudes excellent service, with enormous beautifully appointed rooms, an amazing view and balcony for every room, an even more amazing decanter shaped infinity pool, and the crown jewel the delectable Michelin starred restaurant. 

The lower entrance gates to The Yeatman Hotel, this is NOT where guests arrive.

Speaking of the restaurant at the Yeatman, we had one of our best meals of the entire trip that night. It was hard to beat, the top notch service for both the cuisine and especially the wine. Our Sommelier that night was Helmer and he introduced us to many of the different wine regions of Portugal. We chose the wine pairing and he asked us for our input so he could tailor our wines to match our palates and the level of discovery we wanted to embark on with the cuisine. The restaurant at the Yeatman has an incredible 1,200 selections (all Portuguese wines) in their wine cellar for diners to choose from and 82 of them are available by the glass. This allows for the Sommelier team to match the diners preferences to the wines paired with the cuisine, adventurous or not. This was by far the best wine pairing we had ever encountered for a meal, ever. I tend to be skeptical of wine pairings in general as many are small pours from wines specially picked to exploit as much profit from the wine pairing as possible. This was not the case as Helmer brilliantly contrasted a Lisboan Pinot Noir (blind I would swear it was from Oregon or the Sonoma Coast) with a Douro red blend that was elegant and leaned more to a Burgundian sensibility as it showed the earthy and mineral inspiration of a red Burgundy. Bravo to the Yeatman’s Wine Director Beatriz Machado for a talented staff and an adventurous wine program that thrills the senses and simultaneously educates the diner about the many great wines of Portugal. That evening at dinner I knew few Portuguese wine producers by name, minus a few of the larger names and those highly praised by critics.  I only knew a tiny fraction of the 82 wines on the list. On the flight home I went back through the wine list I took with me and recognized many, many more of the wines. 

Our fantastic Sommelier Helmer gave us a peak at the kitchen the evening we dined at The Yeatman

Large vats holding vintage Port at Taylor's.

The tour of Taylor's Port Lodge started with a tasting of the Chip Dry White Port, a simple and easy going fortified white wine.  White Port these days is being diversified into the cocktail set in Portugal as a mixer. The Connoisseur tasting was almost every wine they produce, plus I had asked for the 2011 Vintage Port (VP) Port to try and they came through and had it available. But first was the walking tour of the facilities which was in a large group of about 20 persons. The tour guide was great and managed the big group to make you feel like you were the only people on the tour, giving us a ton of factual information about the history, processes and products of Taylor’s. 

Port pipes holding wine destined for Tawny ports.

Initially we came upon huge vats containing a vast array of port wines ageing to perfection. Then later we walked down a long corridor lined with the pipes that contained wines dating back to the late 1800s. At the end of the corridor was a huge wooden tank, probably the largest I have ever seen. This was the LBV tank where the Late Bottled Vintage (LBV) port aged before it was bottled, destined for earlier consumption of a VP by the consumer. Taylor’s invented LBV and now every major Port house produces an LBV. At about $16-20 it is one of the best deals one can get for a VP ready to drink as it hits the shelf. We saw some stock of old bottles aging quietly and a few more tanks, but the tour came to an end and the real fun started with the tasting of the port wines.

A very old wood tank, not sure if this was for blending or fermentation, it may not even be used anymore.

The following was a private tasting conducted in the tasting room at Taylor's. The Tawnies were great, especially the 20 and the 40 year old. The 2008 LBV port is a must buy, 2007 is the LBV in the market right now in the US but I will be keeping an eye out for the 2008 and will purchase this when it is released here in the USA. Of the VPs, I liked 2009 right now, was fascinated with 2011 though it is too young to enjoy its full potential.  But the 2011 will be a special VP once it comes into its own. The Vargellas 2008 VP was great, a much different style that was more voluptuous and flamboyant than the classic VP. Below are my tasting notes:

2008 Late Bottle Vintage Port
The LBV is an easy drinking, jovial, and full of character, classic everyday ruby port. Not expensive at around $18 this delivers a great vintage port experience for the money. Lisa had said before this trip she does NOT like Port wines. After one sip of this she said, whoa, this is really good I like this one. Black cherry, cola, subtle spice with supple and fine tannins. Ultra silky on the entry and through to the finish. Full flavored but not weighty or cloying, fresh with good length and fruit.

10 Year Tawny Port
A red-brown color with light red edges. Whiffs of your standard Tawny port where the orange, brown and golden yellow spectrum of aromas and flavors are always standard. Orange peel, caramel, and citrus spritz notes were immediate, full bodied and a bit of alcohol fug, to me not as fresh as its older siblings.

20 Year Tawny Port
An orange-red color with amber edges. Similar aromas and flavors to the 10 year Tawny but with a brighter and fresher nose, more depth in the palate, plus more mature notes from the extra years of age in barrel. There is less spice and the alcohol is better integrated, more complex orange and citrus flavors and aromas, and a little brown sugar that lead to a fresher impression. Good intensity, with an elegance to its weight, this sails to a long and fresh finish.

30 Year Tawny Port
A red-brown color with amber edges. This has the most pungent nose of the three Tawny ports. More sherry-like with saline and oxidized notes that further complicate the palate in a good way. The caramel is enhanced and plays a foil well to the orange zest, almond and creamy notes one gets in the palate and especially the nose. This palate impression is more full bodied than the 20, 30 and 40 Tawny ports. This ends with huge finish.

40 Year Tawny Port
A lighter orange-brown color with amber edges. As expected, this was the most elegant, complex and balanced of the bunch. The nose rises easily and immediately shows you the kaleidoscope of aromas that later unfold on the palate in gentle waves of complexity. Medium plus bodied with elegant but persistent layers of orange zest, caramel, maple candy, roasted nuts, and dabs of cream and brown spices that repeat gently wave after wave of flavor. Great acidity and an uber clean and long finish that sails on forever. Outstanding.

Quinta de Vargellas 2008 Vintage Port
A vintage ruby port from a single Quinta sourced from the Quinta de Vargellas vineyards in Douro Superior, the furthest east region in the Douro Valley. The color is an opaque purple and red core with red edges. Meaty and pungent plum, blackberry, sweet tobacco, vitamin, and spice notes that rise from the glass. The full bodied and extracted palate adds mocha chocolate, black raspberry, and leather notes. A medium+ finish, the freshness is less so than the others, but this wine’s difference is a nice contrast to the 2009 and 2011 traditional Taylor's VPs. Lisa’s favorite of the group.

Taylor’s Vintage Port Overview
Probably the most important port wine that Taylor’s produces, and certainly its most recognized ruby port, is the classic vintage port. With small production compared to their other bottlings, the vintage port is made only when there is an excellent vintage that is “declared” by the house as an exceptional vintage worth bottling for a single year. The sources for the vintage port wine are only from the best lots of the 3 estates Quinta de Vargellas, Quinta de Terra Feita and Quinta do Junco. Once the lots are harvested Taylors will select the best lots from the three properties and then aged them for two years in large oak vats.

Vintage Port 2009
The color is an opaque red and blue, with red edges. Immediately the nose gives the impression of a distinct wine, not so much of a sweet wine that port can be. Outstanding elegance, Bing cherry, blueberries, spice and saddle leather aromas rise from the glass. The palate has superb grip, a full bodied structure with layers of flavor. At first it was still a little tight, but with 30 minutes in the glass, the air changed the dimensions of the wine nicely, allowing the wine to blossom and open more. Firm tannins are less noticeable, but with more purposeful detection they were apparent through the fresh fruit and perfectly integrated brandy fortification. The structure echoes through the finish, framing a long, complex finish of fruit and spice. Awesome. Still a baby, I’d wait a few years. If you can’t wait decant for several hours checking in along the way.

Vintage Port 2011
My first taste of the heralded 2011 vintage ports did not disappoint. Of course different than the 2009 vintage port and not yet fully integrated, you could however get a good indication of quality from the different parts of the wine. Impeccable freshness, perfectly ripe and structure tannins, well balanced fruit and acidity were all traits in this wine. When these different parts of the wine integrate over time, what will be left is a sublime and legendary port wine. Again more wine like in the nose. Currants, licorice and graphite concentrate in the nose and flow through to a palate complex with blueberry, black cherry, licorice, and spice. Medium plus tannins are young, ripe and tight; fresh acids add lift and push the finish even further along with solid length and complexity. A legend in the making.

A Bientot!


Tuesday, October 01, 2013

Discovering Portugal - An Overview

Discovering Portugal 

An Overview

September 2013

Lisa & I standing above the Pintas vineyard overlooking one of the best site in the Douro Valley

Earlier this month we made our most recent trip to Europe. Our destination was Portugal to see the cities of Porto and Lisbon, as well as the wine regions of the Douro Valley and Alentejo. We decided on Portugal for a few reasons, initially we were drawn to the fact there are many new hotels focused specifically on wine tourism. Another reason was the relative affordability. Even with the Euro exchange rate higher than the Greenback, the relative affordability of the country was very favorable. Traveling to Portugal from New Jersey gave us the option to fly to and from either Porto or Lisbon. This allowed us to efficiently move to each destination without having to waste time going back to our starting place to fly home. That being said we flew to Porto, took the train to the Douro Valley, drove to Alentejo and drove again to our departure city of Lisbon.

The Abandonado vineyard at Alves de Sousa in the Douro Valley

Before planning for this trip, when I thought of Portugal, like I am sure many other wine enthusiasts do, I think immediately of Port wines. I am here to tell you that Portugal from a wine perspective is so much more than just Port wine. The Port wines are  fantastic, but the real discovery is in the amazing variety and high quality of the table wines. The really good stuff is available in the USA, but you have to seek it out. It’s not a hard search, just use if your local shop does not carry what you want. If all else fails there are many charming Douro or Alentejo regional wines that are a steal around $10-15. This series of writings on our journey through Portugal will help the reader discover many of these table wines as well as uncover new Port wines.

Part I – Porto

The Ponte Dona Maria (constructed by Gustave Eifel) connecting Porto to Villa Nova de Gaia

We flew overnight on a Friday so we would land on Saturday morning and enjoy the entire day with no further travel. We booked a tour guide for the first 3 parts of our trip and I can’t recommend more to do the same if you ever travel to Portugal. Miguel Leal, the CEO and founder of ML Private Tours, was our guide and met us at the gate when we arrived. Like any gentleman he took Lisa’s bags and led us to his sharp and sleek Audi A5 four door luxury sedan which would be our ride for the next 6 days. Little did we know at the time that Miguel would be a great new friend by the end of those 6 days.

The sun setting over Porto from our balcony at the Yeatman in Villa Nova de Gaia

We made our way through the main parts of Porto, visiting or driving by many of the sights in town and along the Douro River which led to the Atlantic Ocean not far down river and easily in sight. We took in many of the beautiful views as the banks of the Douro River rise gradually to higher elevations over the river in Porto. On the north side of the river is Vila Nova de Gaia where the Port lodges are located and where our fantastic hotel, The Yeatman, is located. But first, we stopped just across the road at the Port lodge Taylor Fladgate. There we enjoyed a tour and a private VIP tasting of all of the serious Port wines, including the much hyped 2011 vintage port. I would have liked another day or two to visit more Port lodges, but more importantly to enjoy the fantastic Yeatman hotel.

The decanter shaped infinity pool at The Yeatman, the Ponte Dona Maria and Porto in the background

Part II – The Douro Valley

Above the Douro river looking west towards Pinhoa, the heart of the Douro Valley

The following day on Sunday morning we hopped on a train headed to the Douro Valley. Our stop was in Regua 2 hours east, but you can take the train further up valley past the sleepy town of Pinhao, which is the heart of the Douro Valley. The train itself rides along the Douro River after about an hour allowing for beautiful views of the rolling hills, vineyards, and picturesque villages perched on top of the hills.

The Hotel at Quinta do Vallado (right), our home base for our stay in the Douro Valley

When we arrived in Regua, we grabbed a taxi to our home for the next 3 days at the Hotel at Quinta do Vallado. We checked in quickly and made our way to the wine tour scheduled for that late morning. Later in the afternoon we made our way to Pinhao for a boat cruise up the Douro River where we saw the true beauty and splendor of the Douro Valley from the river. We made our way a few miles up-river, sipping Port, taking pictures and absorbing the gorgeous scenery the whole way. Later that evening we enjoyed a spectacular meal at DOC. There we sampled a wide variety of Portuguese wines that were paired with each course of our testing menu that was locally sourced and influenced.

My favorite photo of the trip taken with an iPhone above the Pintas Vineyard in the Douro Valley

The next morning we rose early for a full day of wine and jaw-dropping vineyard tours starting at Wine & Soul, Quinta do Portal for lunch, and then finally at the gorgeous Quinta do Crasto to finish the days’ wine festivities. On our last full day we enjoyed the wines of Van Zeller and Quinta Vale D. Maria in the morning, tasting their exceptional wines and getting a tour of their facilities. For lunch we stopped at the amazing Castas e Pratos in Regua on our way to our afternoon appointment at Alves de Sousa where we had a phenomenal tour of the Alves de Sousa vineyards, visiting the vineyards high above the valley floor. After the tour we tasted through their exceptional wines. Later that evening we had dinner back at Quinta do Crasto with a selection of some of their best wines with our friends Miguel and Andrea of Quinta do Crasto. What an unforgettable 3 days, we were already panning our trip back!

In the infinity pool at the fantastic Quinta do Crasto before dinner there at the Quinta on our last evening in the Douro 

Part III – Alentejo

The vineyards at Herdade do Esporao in Alentejo

Sad to leave the Douro but excited for Alentejo, we departed Wednesday morning heading south and then east to Alentejo in the far southeast part of the country. We cut the drive in half with a stop at Fatima for lunch. Fatima is famous for 2 things. The first being a holy site of the Roman Catholic Church where 3 local children witnessed revelations of the Virgin Mary’s spirit in 1917. The second is Tia Alice, a local restaurant serving some of the country’s best versions of classical Portuguese dishes like Acorda.

Lunch at Tia Alice in Fatima

We arrived at our wine hotel L’and and were ready for some pool time to relax the remainder of the afternoon and then the early evening in our spacious skysuite. We later had dinner at L’and and had a delicious and relaxing meal.

The beautiful new wine hotel L'and was our home in Alentejo.

The following Thursday morning we rose early to make our way to wine and vineyard tours at Cartuxa and Esporao where we also had a spectacular lunch. Later that evening we had my favorite regional dinner at Sao Rosas in Estromez. 

Part IV – Lisbon

High above Lisbon from the Castelo de Sao Jorge
Friday morning we rose early one more time to make our way west to our last stop in Lisbon. On our way to Lisbon we stopped in the Setabul wine region to tour the wine cellars and wine making facilities at Jose Maria de Fonseca, make cheese at a local cheese producer, and enjoy a fantastic lunch at a local spot serving a mixed grill mix of meats, fish and vegetables.

The original family home at the winery Jose Maria de Fonseca in Setabul.

In Lisbon we parted ways with our good friend and guide Miguel. Miguel is a consummate professional, a passionate Portuguese who loves his country, a fantastic guide and a great companion on the road. The trip would definitely not have been as good without him and his expertise. We had a private tour at almost every location we stopped at with our own interpreter (where needed, which was not much in the north), how can one ask for anything better?

The 25 de Abril Bridge spanning the Tejo river from Lisbon, with Jesus overlooking from Almada south of Lisbon.

Lisbon was great, but not what I was expecting. I was expecting a city that was cleaner and more elegant, though it is very cosmopolitan with a certain charm that is very European. It is a gritty city plastered with graffiti in the midst of a strangling rate of unemployment amidst this latest stage of the great global recession. There are however many beautiful pockets of the city. The Alfama district where Fado, the musical soul of the city, calls home was a beautiful part of the city. Small and delicious restaurants are tucked into random nooks in the streets and alleys. In Lisbon there are many of your standard museums and monuments, as well as a huge castle at the highest point of the city, a look-alike of the Golden Gate Bride of San Francisco, as well as a giant Jesus statue like the one in Rio de Janeiro. We saw most of these in passing or on foot and enjoyed our remaining days in Lisbon before we flew home. We ate our way through some of the best restaurants in Lisbon such as Assintura, Alma, and 100 Maneiras.

Padrão dos Descobrimentos (Monument to the Discoveries) in Belem, Portugal.

We enjoyed our journey of discovery in Portugal and can’t wait to get back. We want to head deeper into the Douro, stay longer in Port, and maybe check out other wine regions like the Dao, Vinho Verde or the island of Madeira. We also want to head back to Alentejo for a longer stay and then hit the southern coast beaches.

I can’t recommend Portugal more if you are looking to get to Europe, not only for its value or because of the great wine and food, but for the warm and friendly people that make this a special place to visit and make new friends.

A bientot!


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